The news this morning after Christmas is more bad news, especially for the Horn of Africa. As if the Darfur debacle in Sudan is not bad enough, the civil war in Somalia has escalated beyond the borders. Yesterday Ethiopia dispatched a fighter plane to briefly strafe the international airport in Mogadishu. This was not exactly shock-and-awe, but then Mogadishu is not Baghdad and the self-styled “Islamists” in more-or-less control of the capital are not a trained and disciplined army.

It looks as though the days of the temporary post-warlords are numbered. Ethiopia, supporting the still-recognized government not quite in exile, has the obvious blessing of the United States. While it is doubtful the Ethiopian army would mount a full-scale assault on the Somali capital, the old (or perhaps more accurately the one before the latest) regime will probably be restored. The current fighting is politics as unfortunately usual. But not without ideology fanning the fumes. As reported by Jeffrey Gettlemen in today’s New York Times, “Ethiopian officials said they were following specific instructions by the transitional government to seal Somalia’s borders to bar foreign fighters. According to United Nations officials, the Islamists are supported by several thousand Eritreans, Libyans, Syrians and Yemenis who have responded to the call of a holy war against Ethiopia, a Christian-led country.”

Jihad in Somalia? Prester John, perhaps, has been resurrected from his medieval cenotaph? The fictitious great-Christian-hope potentate Prester John existed only in the dreams of medieval Christians, looking to the east for crusade support. Indeed the earliest references to John in the 12th century place him as a descendant of one of the three Magi. But it was the turn-not-the-other-cheek Mongols who headed towards Jerusalem, devastating Baghdad in 1258. The magical kingdom of Prester John could not be found, even by the adventurous Marco Polo, in all of Asia. By the fifteenth century the lost Christian realm suffered continental drift, becoming associated with a real Christian domain, that of the Abyssinian Negus in Ethiopia. So convinced were the Catholic Portuguese that Prester John’s lineage ruled in Africa that Vasco de Gama carried a letter of introduction as a loyal Christian brother.

But the well-trod good guy vs bad guy trope will not work for the current problems in Somalia. The United States supported the gang of self-serving warlords who were recently ousted by the media-branded “Islamists.” Another outbreak of Al-Qaeda for the Bush administration’s universal war on terrorism? Not really, unless every grievance (and there are so many reasons) against U.S. foreign policy is per force part of an Al Qaeda plot as big as the imagined realm of Prester John.

Writing for The Christian Science Monitor, Mike Pflanz observes:

Most of Jowhar’s 30,000 people, while far from radical Muslims, had welcomed the ICU when they wrested control from the previous boss, a warlord called Mohamed Dhere, in June.

Since then, residents say the town has turned a corner.

The new Islamist government pacified the violent family groups called subclans, which make up the backbone of Somali society.

Subclan representatives have now joined together on committees to handle governance tasks like distributing food aid to flood victims. Such practical efforts, Somali observers say, are managed without religious considerations.

“There is only one court member [on the committee], and he doesn’t hold the key to the food stores or decide where the money goes,” says Mohamed Abdi Mirkow, the ICU’s general secretary for Middle Shebelle Province.

The new administration has also appeared keen to assume the responsibilities of government, despite unpopular fundamentalist bans on playing music, talking politics, and chewing qat, a mild herbal stimulant.

For the first time in several years, MSF was able work in villages which were often out of bounds, venturing deep into the bush to hand out mosquito nets to fight malaria which soared since floods hit in August. Recent fighting is likely to limit their movement.

Somalia has suffered disastrous political insecurity in which up to an estimated one million people have reportedly died due to the unrest over the past fifteen years. Blaming the “Islamists” is the easy way out of a mess the United States exacerbated with a botched 1993 attack on Mogadishu. Cinematic glory aside, our use of force only made the situation worse. Dragging Ethiopia into the conflict may make for a future blockbuster film, but it will hardly solve the humanitarian nightmare facing Somalia.

A cynic might suggest that the current battle is not really about jihad. Consider the following comments in today’s New York Time’s article:

In Beledweyne, a town near the Ethiopian border, residents resumed the lives they had led before Islamist rule, not even a day after the Islamist forces pulled out. A truck hauling chat, a mildly narcotic leaf that the Islamists had outlawed, pulled into the market to a burst of cheers.

“It was wonderful to see that truck,” said Farah Abdi Dereer, a vendor of spare parts.

For those unfamiliar with “chat,” called qât in Arabic, this is a stimulant plant (Catha edulis) widely chewed in Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen. Banned in Saudi Arabia by the conservative Wahhabi way of not thinking (and de facto banned in Boston and other American cities as a controlled substance), qât remains a national passion in Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen. Muslims in these countries have long legitimized the chewing of the leaves as a religious plus, since the effect is stimulating the central nervous system and keeping one awake to perform prayers. It was probably mystic Muslim Sufis who first discovered the medicinal properties of the leaves and brought this knowledge (and the plant) across the Red Sea to Yemen. This happened about the time that the legend of Prester John was shifting to Africa, over five centuries ago.

Legends die hard; people n the Horn of Africa die all too easily.

Daniel Martin Varisco

[This post is also archived on the HNN at]